Classical Music Rattle and Hum

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Sir Simon Rattle is off to lead London’s orchestra amid a buzz about the British city’s new, signature concert hall.
From Berlin to London, Simon Rattle is a busy man.

Sir Simon Rattle is going to spend a lot of times in airplanes in the next two years. The wild haired director, who has brought passion and flair to the Berlin Philharmonic in recent years, is leaving his post to become music director of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). But for one season, he will be doing both jobs.

Mr. Rattle, 60, is to take up his new post in September 2017. His contract at the Berlin orchestra runs until summer 2018. This means that for a few hectic months, he will be the chief conductor in two cities. Since major cultural institutions plan dates two years in advance, Mr. Rattle has to make all sorts of key artistic decisions in Britain.

In London, the concert hall has long been a touchy issue. Since half an eternity, British artists have been pressing for London to build a world-class venue for classical music, aside from the Royal Festival Hall with its so-so acoustics and the Barbican Centre. With the return from Berlin of a lost son, this aspiration might become reality.

Long-term, the project could generate £890 million for the British economy through taxes, duties and other proceeds. At least, that’s the stated hope of the 250-page study. The new concert hall is not expected to be completed before 2023.

Although the LSO official denies there is any direct connection between the engagement of Mr. Rattle and the government’s willingness to invest in a new cultural center, the main beneficiaries of the project will in any event be the conductor and the orchestra.

A new feasibility study sets the building costs at around £278 million (€378 million, or $401 million). The government is supposed to contribute £200 million with patrons and sponsors coming up with the rest. Those who are the most generous will have the right to have the building named in their honor.

The concert hall is planned to have 1,900 seats and to be built on the site of the Museum of London, which is right around the corner from the concrete arts and apartment complex, the Barbican Centre. To accommodate this, the Museum of London will leave its current location and move to larger quarters at nearby Smithfield Market, once the site of London's largest meat market.

A creative complex would be created with the current Barbican concert hall remodeled as a venue for all genres of music, from jazz and world music all the way to pop and contemporary.

The new building is planned for nightly performances as well as a daytime venue for educational activities and training site for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Long-term, the project could generate £890 million for the British economy through taxes, duties and other proceeds. At least, that’s the stated hope presented in the 250-page study. The new concert hall is not expected to be completed before 2023.

For the first time, the LSO would have the possibility of holding its rehearsals in the same hall as where the concerts take place – an arrangement enjoyed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In England, observers hope working conditions could be improved so much that finally a single top world-class orchestra would emerge from the circle of the many good orchestras in Britain.

The first recorded production that British musicians and their future boss produced on CD shows there is a way to go. The CD was released by LSO live, a label members of the orchestra founded in 1999. The label was one of the first record companies owned by an orchestra.

LSO releases six to seven CDs annually, and musicians decide on the repertoire and sign-off on recordings only when the players are satisfied artistically.

Mr. Rattle and the London orchestra chose Robert Schumann’s 1843 oratorio, “Paradise and the Peri,” for the beginning of their relationship.

It’s a work whose narrative, based on a text by a poem by Thomas Moore, and aesthetics are far removed from that of today’s audiences. It’s a difficult work to appreciate, but perhaps it’s easier for the British because a grand tradition of oratorios exists on the island, and audiences are familiar with the curious, 19th-century manifestations of the genre there.

For Mr. Rattle, the opus is clearly close to his heart. So he conducts with a steady hand through the heterogeneous 90-minute piece, breathing organically with choir and orchestra, creating a warm, thick sound with many delicate nuances between piano and pianissimo.

Mark Padmore sensitively performs the part of the narrator. Kate Royal, Bernarda Fink and Andrew Staples, who had been there for Mr. Rattles’ performances of “Paradise and the Peri” with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2009, put in solid singing performances. Florian Boesch, who creates a velvety-smoothness, is a revelation. Sally Matthews in the demanding title role quickly reaches the limits of her voice.

The performers follow their future leader with great devotion but the result is ultimately unexceptional. So Mr. Rattle’s main task will be in aesthetic refinement and expansion if he wants to boost his LSO into the league of world-class ensembles.


This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]